The chance to learn about early European expeditions interacting with Southern Maori was too good to pass up on a recent Sunday afternoon when cultural historian and linguist, Dr Olga Suvorova, delivered her research into little-known 19th century Russian voyages to Antarctica and the southern oceans. One in particular landed in Queen Charlotte Sound.

We learned about the six surviving written accounts of Russian Antarctic expeditions between 1819 and 1821. One of these expeditions, led by Billingshausen and Leserev, left Sydney in 1820 but was caught in a storm that brought them unexpectedly to New Zealand and Queen Charlotte Sound – inadvertently making this crew the only Europeans to interact with South Island Maori during this period.

This area of Aotearoa was a trading centre and it appears that the expedition bartered successfully.  It was fascinating to discover that this voyage used Cook’s accounts to provide them with a rudimentary Maori dictionary to aid in trade and barter. At one point the Russian sailors asked for “ika” and indeed received fish.

Forty three artefacts from this and other expeditions have been found in Russian museums – and continue to be rediscovered.  Just last year,  an ornate pare (door lintel) was found in the St Petersburg museum collection.  As Dr Suvorova said, pare represent one’s ancestors and would not normally have been traded, but as this area was a trading gateway,  it might not have come from this area originally and its new owners would have had no compunction about trading it.

Due to preservation attempts in the chaos of WW2, some taonga from Aotearoa may still lie unseen within other museums in Russia.  It’s wonderful to have experts such as Dr Suvorova to bring these to light for us and know they’re in safe hands.

We were thrilled to be able to share with you the audio recording from Dr Olga Suvorova’s lecture on Hidden Treasures: Māori Taonga in Russian Museums.

Angela Gilbert